California Vineyards Struggle Amid Farmworker Shortage

September 4, 2018, 4:15 PM UTC

The ongoing battle over immigration could hit wine lovers in the wallet as many California vineyards are struggling to find seasonal workers to assist with harvesting the 2018 crop.

Wine makers face a perfect storm of problems regarding the issue: The ongoing battle about U.S. immigration policies and competition from other higher-paying, local industries, such as construction, which are helping the area recover from last year’s wildfires.

“Labor is a struggle,” Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrower trade group told Santa Rosa’s The Press Democrat.

The vast majority of California’s farm workers are foreign born, with many coming from Mexico. However, a 2015 PEW Research Center report found more Mexicans are leaving the U.S. than coming here.

Vineyards hoping to bring in migrant workers from Mexico must use a federal program known as the H-2A Visa, which requires, among other things, that they provide seasonal housing and transportation from Mexico. Not every winery is equipped to house that additional staff.

To make the jobs more attractive to both locals and seasonal workers who are being wooed by construction companies, which can offer year-round pay, vineyards are increasing their wages during harvest to as much as $30 per hour. (Pay rates for the rest of the year have gone up as well.)

Finding American citizens who want the work, though, has been challenging.

“This would be chaos without [Mexican workers] getting the job done,” Javier Contreras, a foreman at Martinelli Winery, told the Press Democrat. “We started to bring people from Mexico some years ago because many of the workers that went back to their country couldn’t come back the following year. We need all the people that left and couldn’t get back.”

Changing immigration policies have caused farmer angst throughout California for more than a year. In 2017, crops were left rotting on the vine as a shortage of migrant workers impacted the year’s vegetable harvest.